Reitz Home Museum dresses up

Reitz Home Museum dresses up to reflect world of holiday traditions

Evansville’s Reitz Home Museum, built in 1871, has long ruled as the stately queen of the grand dowagers in the city’s Historic District, and Victorian Christmas tours through the house have been a tradition for 26 years.

According to executive director Tess Grimm, during the holiday season thousands of people pass through the glowing stained-glass doors of this well-preserved Victorian home to get a glimpse of what Christmas may have been like for the Reitz family that lived there in the late 1800s. But this year visitors are in for a surprise, because Grimm has put a new twist on the tradition.

“Celebrations Around the Globe” is this year’s theme, and Tri-State residents will learn how cultures around the world celebrate Christmas and other holidays that are an integral part of their heritage. Each room will represent the traditions of a specific country, and as a result, the Reitz Home will be a mosaic of celebrations that includes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year as well as examples of various European Christmas traditions.

Grimm wanted to include Evansville’s growing international community in Reitz Home holiday festivities, so she invited some of its members to assist local decorators with the home’s holiday transformation and encouraged them to incorporate some of their native countries’ traditions.

When Bushra Saqib, a Pakistani-born Muslim, was asked to help decorate Christina’s Bedroom, she was delighted at the opportunity to share some of her customs with the community. She says in an age when Muslims are increasingly associated with terrorism, she was pleased to have the chance to “present the beautiful side of Islam.”

For Muslims, Eid ul-Fitr is the most celebrated holiday of the year. It marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and the beginning of a joyous three-day feast. Wearing new clothes at Eid is a time-honored tradition, and Saqib is organizing a display of festive, hand-embroidered dresses that are often worn for the occasion.

To illustrate the diversity of culture in the Muslim world, Saqib asked Iranian and Syrian friends to contribute Eid clothing to the exhibit as well. “I wanted to show that Islam is very diverse; it doesn’t belong to one country,” Saqib says. “We dress differently, and we have different languages and different food. The only thing we have in common is the faith.”

Down the hall in Wilhemine’s Bedroom, a group of Ivy Tech Community College design students are barely visible as they sit huddled in heaps of Christmas flowers, fruit and garlands that they are using to create an Italian Christmas exhibit.

Lindsey Miller, the student chairperson of the Ivy Tech Reitz Home decorating committee, says there is one big difference between an American Christmas and an Italian Christmas. “Our focal point is the Christmas tree, but their focal point is a Nativity scene and the baby Jesus,” she says. In keeping with that tradition, a delicate porcelain Nativity scene is displayed on an antique dresser.

Downstairs, Gina McCalister, owner of Mulberry Jean’s Accents in Newburgh, takes her responsibility of transforming the parlor into a frosty French fantasyland very seriously. She likes the “elegance and romance of Christmas in French Victorian times,” and her goal is to re-create that ambience in the Reitz Home. She has done her homework and learned that during the Victorian era, the French lavishly decorated their homes at Christmas, covering every nook and cranny with snowy white decorations.

“They used things found in nature, like pine cones, and they would roll them in sugar to make them glisten,” McCalister says. “They did the same thing with fruit. They called it candied fruit.” McCalister comes prepared with an arsenal of sparkling, glittering items from her Newburgh gift shop. She displays a certain savoir-faire as she places Pere Noel, the French equivalent of Santa Claus, next to the all-white Christmas tree, then nestles one of several snow-covered birds’ nests into the frosty-looking branches. “It was considered good luck to put a bird’s nest on the Christmas tree,” says McCalister.

Surrounded by so much wintry white, visitors may feel like Clara in the Nutcracker Suite as she embarks on her journey through the Land of Snow.

With a nod to Reitz Home tradition, the opulent drawing room will still feature Victorian Christmas decorations, including a 7½-foot Christmas tree decked out in classic red bows. Nick Williams, a designer from Lea Matthews Furniture and Interiors, is an old pro at decorating the Reitz Home. He always looks forward to coming up with new ideas to outdo his decor from the previous year. But he’s careful not to get too over the top. “I believe in enhancing what’s already here,” Williams says. “We don’t want to compete with the beauty that’s already at the museum.”

To enhance the atmosphere of cultural diversity, international music and dance performances will be scheduled at the Reitz Home on weekends. Visitors will be serenaded by University of Southern Indiana faculty and students singing French carols and will be entertained by lively Chinese and Polynesian dances.

Grimm says she is excited about showcasing holiday decorations, clothing and entertainment that represent the increasingly diverse people of the Evansville area. “We have visitors that come from all over the United States and from all over the world,” she says, “and to us it seems appropriate to embrace our international community and give them an opportunity to show us their celebrations.”

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